Cambodia: Indigenous groups recall painful past
Nok Yik was seven years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, plunging the country into darkness and terror. She was confined to a forced labour camp in north-eastern Ratanakiri province, where she served food and water to a troupe of workers for 12 hours a day.
Her grandmother and older brother were sent to other labour camps scattered across the country. Then her mother succumbed to illness and died, leaving the young ethnic Kreung girl to watch as the rest of her family was torn apart.
‘My father was caught walking outside the camp,’ recalls the 47-year-old woman, gazing over the hills behind an adjacent creek. ‘The soldiers thought he was trying to escape and shot him in the back.’
Her uncle was next. Villagers watched in horror as a batch of soldiers tied him up and threw him into a nearby lake. Rumours quickly spread that soldiers were coming to murder the rest of the commune too.
‘Soldiers said they were coming to collect people to “clear” the forest,’ says Nok Yik. ‘We thought they were going to kill us.’
That’s when she grabbed her one surviving relative -- her three-year old brother --- and snuck away from the camp.
The two siblings walked eastwards for several days, cutting through Cambodia’s unforgiving jungle in the hopes of reaching Vietnam. They hid from scouring bands of Khmer Rouge soldiers, surviving on wild berries and fruit.
‘We knew that if we met any soldiers on the way we would be shot on sight,’ says Nok Yik. ‘We walked and cried for days.’
Despite the odds, Nok Yik and her brother reached the safety of a refugee camp on the Vietnamese border. There she was shocked to recognize a familiar face in the crowd: her older brother. Like thousands of other refugees, he had made it to Vietnam.
‘I was very happy when I saw my brother. He picked up my little brother in his arms and cried.’
She was later reunited with her grandmother at a camp near the Lao border, where she stayed for six years. Aged 14, she returned home.
‘It was better when we came back, there was no forced labour,’ says Nok Yik. ‘We could find what remained of our families and go home. We got back our farmland.’
But like many indigenous communities scarred by Pol Pot’s regime, the legacy of conflict lives on. Minority groups and indigenous peoples, ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Khmer majority, were often persecuted for their cultural and religious practices.
‘It had a negative effect on our culture,’ she says. ‘We couldn’t use the forest or speak our own language.’
Communal tensions initially simmered between victims and supporters of Pol Pot’s dictatorship, which claimed over 2 million lives in 1975-1979. Some people in Nok Yik’s community wanted revenge, she explains, with vigilantes targeting the homes of former Khmer Rouge soldiers. It took years of reconciliation for her village to begin to put the past behind them.
The question of justice has resurfaced in recent years, with senior members of Pol Pot’s cadre facing trial in a UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh. In early March, two new suspects were charged with crimes against humanity for their role in the genocide – injecting a fresh burst of interest in the controversial proceedings.
Indigenous communities have often been excluded from the UN-led process as a result of their geographical isolation. And many of their stories, including Nok Yik’s, have gone unheard.
She is adamant that more people should face trial.
‘I know some people who worked with the Khmer Rouge,’ she says. ‘Some have said they’re sorry but others just don’t talk about it. Those who have apologized usually just blame it on “orders from above”. If they are alive today they should face justice.’